By Bruce Newman
Iris Chang’s mother refuses to ‘Forget’ renown author of ‘Rape of Nanking’
Like almost every suicide, the death of Iris Chang left questions that reverberate in the lives of those who loved her long after the gunshot that took her life in 2004. Foremost among them, why would the revered author of an international best-seller — the treasured daughter of immigrant parents, and herself the mother of a 2-year-old she had struggled to conceive — end her life at 36?
Some tantalizing clues are revealed in a new memoir by her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, to be published this week. “The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond ‘The Rape of Nanking’ ” flatly asserts that Chang’s suicide not far from her San Jose home was caused by antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs she was taking.
But the book arouses a question of its own: Why would Chang’s 71-year-old mother — a biochemist with no previous writing experience — willingly reopen the wound left by her daughter’s death? For a year after Iris’ suicide, Ying-Ying and her husband, Shau-Jin, now 74, were unable to speak their daughter’s name without crying. Is “The Woman Who Could Not Forget” also a description of her?
“A person dies twice,” Ying-Ying Chang begins. She is thin but not brittle, her posture upright and her eyes shining as she sits at the dining table of her North San Jose townhome. It is where she was roused from a dreamless sleep just before midnight by Iris’ husband, Brett Douglas, and a police officer, who had come to tell her that her daughter — her beautiful little girl — would never be coming home.
“One death is mortal,” she says, “the other is memory. Iris’ body died already, but I don’t want the memory of her to die. Her life symbolized a lot of things, gave a lot of people courage. Even though she died, her noble spirit is still here.”
The evidence of Iris Chang’s life is all around. Her fierce, determined gaze peers out from pictures on the wall, joined by a poster for “The Rape of Nanking,” which recounted a “second holocaust” committed by Japanese soldiers in the former Chinese capital during World War II. The book confronted Japanese nationalists and war crime deniers with unassailable proof of the slaughter — 200,000 innocents murdered in the first six weeks of occupation.
Act of remembrance
“Letting go is not easy for any family,” Ying-Ying says. “I felt relieved after I wrote this book. I don’t want to keep on thinking about this. My relatives and my husband keep on saying forget about it, but I wanted to finish this first before I forget.”
The memoir’s introduction is by Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” who was impressed by the determination of Chang’s mother — for whom English remains very much a second language — to celebrate her daughter’s life.
“I don’t think of her as being unable to forget,” Rhodes says via email from his home near Half Moon Bay. “One sign of recovery from traumatic experience is when you can narrate it in the past tense, rather than continuing to experience it in the present. Not that she will ever forget her daughter, or think of her without pain, but that she has memorialized her life exactly as Iris would probably have hoped.”
Iris was 29 when “The Rape of Nanking” settled onto the New York Times best-seller list, making her a literary sensation while conferring a connection to her roots that she hungered for. Even in that moment of ecstatic ascendancy, she described the experience as “like being strapped to a roller coaster and not being able to get off.”
Hiding her depression
Her mother’s memoir details Iris’ frustration at her inability to get pregnant, and the decision she and her husband made to engage a surrogate to overcome a medical condition that caused her to repeatedly miscarry. She suffered from bouts of severe depression for months — possibly years — before her death, but covered her illness with a frenzied work schedule that, at one point, resulted in her being away from her newborn son, Christopher, for a month.
After a breakdown while she was on a trip researching a new book on the Bataan Death March, Iris grew increasingly suspicious of her mother’s expressions of concern. “It’s very complicated to have a mental patient who is smarter than you,” Ying-Ying says. “I knew something was going to happen. I couldn’t sleep. But I didn’t know she would carry it out so quickly.”
Iris took advantage of a loophole in California’s gun law that allowed her to purchase an “antique” gun without a waiting period. All alone on a service road near Los Gatos, she put a pearl-handled Ruger .45 replica revolver into her mouth and pulled the trigger.
Just as Iris came to believe children’s vaccines were responsible for her son’s mild case of autism, Ying-Ying believes psychotropic medicines increased her daughter’s mental instability. “I don’t blame her,” she says. “She was under the influence of the medicines and didn’t know what she was doing.”
Shau-Jin Chang says he has dreamed about his daughter only once, and that was during the week after her death. “And when I woke up from the dream,” he says softly, “I realized she had already gone.” As much as she would like to, Ying-Ying has never been able to conjure up Iris in her sleep. “She never appears in my dreams,” she says sadly. “I think it’s because I’m already thinking about her all the time.”